For Leeds fans he was simply the Best. Your dream winger Eddie looks back on his career with Phil Hay.
Eddie Gray was endowed with more innate talent than a footballer should ask for or expect but, as Don Revie noted, the winger’s skill was not matched by his luck.
“If Eddie had been blessed with any at all,” Revie said, “he would have been a bigger name than George Best.”
Within the confines of the city of Leeds, Gray is in fact held in higher regard than the winger on whom Manchester United bestow so much respect, but it was not his privilege to share the global recognition given to Best. Injury saw to that. Without it, Revie’s opinion of Gray might have come to reflect the wider public view.
Gray and Best were eminently comparable, not least in as much as both had handicaps to fight – Best his demons and Gray the thigh strain he suffered at the age of 16.
While Best was creating international headlines by abandoning Manchester United in 1974, Leeds United were in the process of writing to the Football League’s insurers to inform them of Gray’s impending retirement. The Scot was in his mid-20s and apparently on his last legs.
“It’s a bit of a misconception that I struggled with all sorts of serious injuries right the way through my career,” Gray said. “Every injury I had, I recovered from no problem – with the exception of my thigh strain.
“That happened when I was 16 and there were complications right from the start. I never got over it and it restricted me in every way – when I sprinted or when I kicked the ball. I was always aware of it but, like any problem, you learn to adapt and to cope with the hindrance. You manage it as best you can.
“That was a big disappointment and if it hadn’t been for my injury then I’d have played in 1,000 games for Leeds, I’m sure of that. I’d also have been a better player than I showed. But I’m not bitter. Plenty of other people have seen their careers finished overnight by injury. I was still able to achieve big things.”
The effect of Gray’s thigh strain is amply displayed by the facts and figures of his international career. The winger represented Scotland on 12 occasions, 42 fewer than Billy Bremner. His brother Frank won almost three times as many caps. Invariably lacking fitness when call-ups materialised, Gray felt obliged to protect his body in the interests of Leeds and his manager, Revie.
“International games were played in midweek back then,” Gray said. “It wasn’t a case of having two weeks off from the domestic season.
“I’d be having constant treatment at Leeds and I wasn’t in a position to play for Scotland. Don wouldn’t have let me go even if I’d wanted to. My loyalty was to him and the club before anyone else and it was hard enough making sure I was fit for games on a Saturday.
“By the time I got to the age of 24 or 25, I was ready to pack the game in. Leeds were in contact with the Football League’s insurers and we were waiting to hear back from them. Jimmy Armfield (Revie’s successor at Leeds) asked me to do a bit of coaching with the kids and, over time, he started to think that I could still do a job for him.
“For whatever reason, the insurers never responded and Jimmy eventually asked me if I wanted to have another go.
“I played for the reserves a few times and then went back into the first team for an FA Cup game. Having thought I was finished at 26, I carried on until I was 36. It wasn’t what anyone expected.”
A disillusioned Best meandered between obscure foreign clubs as Gray played towards his retirement in 1984. That period did little to settle the matter of which was the more exceptional winger. Many would lean towards Best. Dissenting voices might say that, aside from his fragile fitness, Gray suffered from too little exposure for a comparison to be fair or accurate.
Admiration of Gray among Best’s relatives was made clear by their request for the Scot to speak at a memorial service held in Best’s honour after his death in 2005. Gray joked that God had been “a bit unfair” to every other footballer when he handed Best his cultured talent and said: “Could George have been any better? I wouldn’t have liked to play against him if he was.” Their appreciation appears to have been mutual.
“I never felt inferior to George,” Gray said. “I always believed I had as much talent as him and I’d have achieved more than I did if it hadn’t have been for my injury.
“The two of us never really talked about the comparison between us like other people did. We were rivals, don’t forget. But he was some player – an unbelievable player with great ability and great passion. It’s down to others to compare us but I had great respect for him and I still do.”